30 June 2013 § Leave a comment

Sometimes I feel like an optical illusion. I get lots of “Oh, you’re part Japanese? Wow… I couldn’t tell at all!”, “I knew as soon as I saw you that you were like, half Asian or something”, “Yeah, I guess I can kind of see it…”, “Mixed kids are so good looking”, and other comments. In Japan, it wasn’t much different. Sometimes, people were surprised, based on my appearance, that I didn’t speak fluent Japanese. Other people would hear my name and ask what my husband’s name was, because I obviously wouldn’t have a Japanese maiden name. The conversation sometimes then turns into a brief talk about my background.

Random person: So, is your mother or your father…?
Me: My father.
RP: So when did he move to Cana..
Me: He was born in Canada.
RP: So he’s Canadian?
Me: Well, yeah, but his parents moved to Canada from Japan in the 1920’s.
RP: Oh, so he speaks Japanese then?
Me: Well, not really. Like, he might understand some vocabulary from having heard it a lot, but I guess I know more Japanese than my dad.
RP: (disappointed, for some reason) Oh. Hahaha.
(Conversation moves onto something else)

I mean, I had a basically Canadian upbringing. No onigiri, Kraft dinner. No Ghibli, Disney and Nickelodeon. No sento and onsen, public swimming pools while wearing swim suits. But there were things. Like my grandparents old Japanese music player and all their old enka. My dad’s shogi board. My grandparents headstone, which is how I’ve always known what 森本 means. The inarizushi that my dad makes for family get togethers and picnics. The smell of rice vinegar, which I’m only fond of in a nostalgic sense, that accompanied him making the inarizushi. The various books on our shelves about Japanese cooking and gardens and scenery. The brief memoirs that my grandma wrote about her life coming to Canada, written out in kana, romaji, and English. I’ve always been vaguely aware of my paternal background, and always curious.

So I went to Japan for awhile. Popular topics in conversation when you live in Japan: Why did you come to Japan? Where are you from? Do you like living in Japan? What’s your favourite Japanese food? I went to teach. I went to travel. And I went to meet some of my family. As previous blog posts might mention, they were lovely. Welcoming. Friendly. I hope to see them again one day. While it was awesome chatting with my Japanese relative who was the closest in age – she’s pretty fluent in English from having studied abroad in Australia – it was also wonderful meeting her grandparents. Two people who knew my grandmother as an aunt. Who, I’m pretty sure, knew both my grandparents. Who are cousins to my father. During my first visit with them, I relied on my aunt from Canada to do most of the communication (except with the cousin who is fluent, and her father who has some conversational English). My second visit went smoothly because my fluent cousin was there the whole time and we spent the day together. And my third visit was not so easy, as my English speaking cousins were preoccupied that day with a taiko performance and after celebrations – but I had been studying Japanese for awhile at that point, and I could actually hold my own (mostly). It felt amazing to be able to talk with them about going to see autumn leaves, about what we’ve all been up to, about my boyfriend (“Is he cute?” “Is he Japanese?” “Do you have a picture?”). They were very kind, and every time I left their house, they would load me up with Japanese oranges from their yard, persimmons, or chocolate.

Living in Japan was an interesting experience overall. I don’t feel like being half-Japanese made a huge difference. My name and background was an interesting conversation point for some people for awhile. A couple of my students said that it made them feel like they could relate to me more. It meant that it was fun meeting other half-Japanese people – and there were lots of them to meet (shout-outs to a few of you who I know are reading this!). It meant that this one time, my boss sent another half Japanese girl to work at a school an hour out of Osaka because he confused her with me, thinking that she had family there (not the best articulated story, but you get the idea? Maybe?). Every time I was out with my other non-Japanese friends, I would be the one that taxi drivers and store clerks talked at because I was the most Japanese by default, I guess. When I was backpacking around Japan in August 2011, my blonde, blue-eyed companion, whose Japanese was superior to mine, would do all the talking when we needed to ask someone questions. I, his vaguely Japanese-looking partner in crime, would do all the smiling, nodding, and “wakarimashita”s as the store clerk or whoever would respond directly to me, and not to him. Another time, a couple of friends got into a taxi before me, and had already tried to tell the cab driver where we wanted to go – the guy who asked first definitely surpasses me in Japanese ability – but the cab driver didn’t understand. Nope. Not until I got in the cab last, and he could ask me where we were going, did he understand the name of the neighborhood that we were trying to get to. It had its benefits, this dark hair, these dark eyes, and these half-Japanese features. On bad days when I just wanted to feel like I blended in, when I didn’t want to be stared at for being a gaijin, I would throw on some sunglasses, and I went from Clark Kent to Superman, from Tsukino Usagi (or Serena, if you will) to Sailor Moon. Maybe people could still tell I wasn’t from around there, but I felt invincible. It was also a delight living in a country where everyone could pronounce my name (and better than I could, at that!), everyone could spell it, and at every silly souvenir store I went to, I could find something personalized with my name on it (for the first time in my life, I had a relatively common name and it felt great!). 

And now I’m back in Niagara, in Canada. Most days, it doesn’t feel like any of it happened. I’ve had the odd person ask if I have some Asian background, but I’m usually asked while I’m at work at a Thai restaurant, so I don’t really count that. Having lived in Japan, I can see connections between my family in Canada and Japan, I can also see how blatantly Canadian I am – I guess. I mean, being there has raised some questions. What does it even mean to be Canadian? What does it mean to be a Canadian abroad? An ex-pat? A third generation Japanese Canadian? A lot of my friends in Japan joked around that Canadians are really apologetic. Being back now, I notice that we do say sorry an awful lot. (I bumped into a guy at work the other day. I said, “Sorry!”. He said, “No, I’m sorry!”. I said, “Sorry!” by which point he’d already walked away).  Having lived in Japan and now looking forward to living in England, I’ve also wondered about how I relate to my own language. I went to Japan and I had to relearn how to say my name, which is technically Japanese. English words become appropriated and become unfamiliar – it’s common to see the word “naive” on skin lotion bottles, meaning that it’s for “sensitive” skin. When I went to the UK for interviews and I was being introduced to some students, I wondered if I ought to pronounce the “t” in my last name as a “d” or a hard “t” – would it change what they thought my last name was? If I say pants, will the students giggle uncontrollably or will they understand the cultural difference and move on? (I would giggle).

Over the next while (however long I can keep it up, in other words), I’m going to be contacting my half-Japanese friends to ask them about their experiences and thoughts, and posting about it on here. If you’re interested in contributing, whether you know me personally or not, let me know. The more the merrier.



20 June 2011 § 3 Comments

One of my students to me, as I walked into the room: “Your imagination has changed!” It sounds like something out of a strange dream sequence. In fact, he was simply commenting on the fact that instead of wearing my apparently usual dark attire (I tend to wear a lot of black to work, I guess), I was wearing a pink flowery shirt and a light grey skirt, topped off with a high, bouncy ponytail.

I started reading a new book today, lent to me by a man in my Japanese class on Fridays:

I’ve thought before of reading Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, but just never did. I started it last night and made a dent in it today on the train to and from Wakayama (travel time equivalent to that between St. Catharines and Toronto). It’s written from the perspective of the Japanese-Canadian narrator, Megumi Naomi Nakane, a Sansei (third generation, the second generation born in Canada). Over the past few years, I’ve been developing an interest in Japanese-Canadian history. Every now and again, I’ll read something relevant. A couple years ago, a collection of poetry from Daphne Marlatt about the Japanese on the West Coast of Canada. Last year, part of David Suzuki’s autobiography, which begins with a couple chapters on the Japanese internment in Canada.

At times, I feel quite distanced from what happened to Japanese people in Canada in the first half of the 20th century, but then other times, I think of my family that experienced the internment first hand and it feels, at times, quite immediate. I’ve always thought that it was kinda cool being half Japanese, and I’ve always felt that this was a large part of my identity, but I’d never really considered how important that combination of Japanese and Canadian is.

I went to a poetry reading last fall where one of the poets was from Vancouver, and she was a half-Japanese woman, also born and raised in Canada. I talked with her after she read and we talked briefly about being half-Japanese. I told her about my intentions to come teach in Japan and she commented that she had often thought of doing the same thing, but felt that it might be strange going to teach English in Japan as a half-Japanese person. So far, my experience has been that many of my students feel closer to me because of my being half-Japanese. Of course, there will be different experiences. Another half-Japanese girl I was talking with the other night said that her family in Japan wasn’t very pleased with a couple of her family members when they married Westerners, and this was sort of evident in their dispositions when she first met them.

Anyway, if any of you reading are ever curious about Japan itself and not all the random thoughts that go through my head while I’m on the train, do check out Alice’s blog. She’s well-written and explores the strange and wonderful things that make living in Japan for the first time such an interesting experience. And please, if you’re ever curious about something in Japan and want my perspective, do ask 🙂

I can’t remember everything I want to share with you!

28 May 2011 § Leave a comment

I don’t know where to begin. There are so many little things I want to tell you about, and a couple of really big things too. The past couple weeks have flown by.

To start, the little things:

They’ve borrowed this word from English in Japanese, just like they’ve borrowed a lot of other words (video, coffee, toilet, digital camera, supermarket, etc.). A lot of the borrowed words retain their meaning. Naive, however, in Japanese, refers to sensitivity – particularly of the skin. I had found it unusual the way that soaps and moisturizers are named here, with words like “Naive” and the like. But then it came up in a lesson last week and a student explained it to me. Who knew!

What is true love?
One of the lessons I taught yesterday to my group classes was about true love. Two of the four students didn’t show up because of work, so it was just me and two woman. As much as I try to pretend to not be any kind of romantic, I really enjoy talking about it,  so it was fun. There’s nothing much more to say about this, actually. There were no apparent major cultural differences of opinion on the subject. I think that’s what I found most interesting. On the other side of the world, notions of true love are very similar. I guess when you consider the popularity of western movies in Japan, this might not be surprising, though.

What’s polite?
I will go into more detail about my visit to my family later, but when I was visiting my distant cousins this past weekend for the first time,  it happened that they brought me and my family visiting from Canada some coffee and these lovely slices of cake. And then they left the room for a good while because that’s what you do here. The cousin closest to my age, who is quite fluent in English, tried to stay to chat with us, but her mother called her out of the room. The idea is that if you have gone to visit someone’s house, you might want some downtime alone or something. So they bring you some light refreshments and leave you alone. We told our cousin that whenever she comes to visit us in Canada, we are going to be quite rude and stay with her the whole time.

I’m half-Japanese.
Obviously. I think we all know this by now. But I enjoy those moments in my lessons when my students tell me that I’m acting Japanese.  I was getting sort of flustered trying to explain the difference between special and specific to a student yesterday, and going into a lot of detail and he stopped me saying to not worry, and that I was being very Japanese. It’s happened a few times before as well. I like it!

Work love.
I’m trying hard to not worry or stress over my job. I think there are a lot of things I could complain about if I wanted to, but I actually am learning to like being there. Now that it’s a couple months into my contract, I’ve started to have regular students coming in for my lessons, giving me an opportunity to get to know them better. When I have different students all the time, and no consistency there, it’s hard to feel like I have any impact at all. But when I’m meeting the same students every week, I can see where they’re improving and see their confidence in speaking a second language increasing. I’m not particularly happy when I’m not doing anything for other people, and my job is a great opportunity to do that. Sometimes I even look forward to it. This is good.

I tried nato at my family’s. It’s basically fermented soy beans. Most people I’d talked to prior to trying it said it smells awful and doesn’t taste that good either. But my cousin urged me to try it and so I did. It wasn’t that good, but it wasn’t that bad. Maybe google this one, just to read what people say about it, and maybe see a picture, because it kind of looks gross too.

A woman fell asleep on me last week on my way to work on the train. I could see her nodding off, and then her head was on my shoulder. No one else was looking or noticed, so I sat there, trying to act like it was nothing when I really just wanted to laugh.  I’d heard that that happens, and it now it finally has!

And now, the bigger thing:

What a comfort it is knowing that I have family here, only a short train ride away (well, short relative to a long flight over the ocean, anyway). Meeting family for the first time, especially family in a different culture and country and language, I had no idea what to expect. Given that my aunt and cousins from Canada who I was going with  had met them before, I wasn’t too concerned about them being welcoming, but their welcome was warmer and greater than I had anticipated! A few of them met us at the train station and were so kind. We were driven back to one of their houses where we spent the day.  I learned that my one cousin and his daughter (the one close to may age) perform with a Taiko drum group (if you google “Tennon Daiko Wakayama”, you’ll find at least numerous references to them). They took us to where they practice and we all got to play on the Taiko drums, which was really, really cool. Of the family there, only two out of seven of them speak English, only one of them fluently. I need to learn more Japanese to talk with them! I am hoping to go to visit again in the next few months.

It’s hard to articulate the experience of meeting distant family for the first time. There is so much, I think, that can only be felt and not spoken.

It’s not that family didn’t mean much before I came to Japan, but it’s become that much more important now that I’m on my own in Japan. One of my aunts and her two daughters were in Japan for the past two weeks and I was able to spend some time with them. It was so nice. The idea of a year (and then some!) without seeing my family – aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, parents, and brother – was daunting.

That being said, I think of you all often, dear family. To all of you reading where ever you are – Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Indiana, Illinois, and anywhere  else I might have missed – I think of you all. I’m so grateful for the Internet and being able to keep in touch with everyone. I can’t imagine doing something like this twenty years ago! (Especially considering I was only four…)

brief run down of the first day, and I don’t think the big city’s for me.

27 February 2011 § Leave a comment

My first day on the job went well overall. It was a full schedule of substitute teaching and I know I messed a few things up, but I knew that would happen and it’s okay. Teaching children is going to take some getting used to. I’m totally alright with teaching teenagers. That’s fun. But anyone younger than 12? It’s not that I don’t like it; I’m just not used to it.

Making some small talk, the school director asked me my husband’s name. I clarified that my last name is my father’s last name. She had been expecting someone more Japanese than me. It’s been interesting having a Japanese name in Japan, but not being Japanese. In Canada, that sort of thing’s pretty normal. A friend here who speaks decent Japanese likes to introduce me to Japanese people, telling them my first and last name, mostly just to see there reaction to it being Japanese. This usually results in them talking to me in Japanese, and me getting a little flustered, saying awkwardly, “Wakarimasen..!” (I don’t understand..!) or “Nihongo ga hanasemasen!” (I don’t speak Japanese!). Then said Japanese person talks to my friend, and I recognize the words for “Canadian”, “father”, “English”, “doesn’t speak or understand”, etc.

I tried a Big Mac for the first time.  It was alright! Also tried a hot pancake-flavoured beverage. I originally wanted something cold from the vending machine, but then when I saw that, I couldn’t help but get it instead. The variety offered in vending machines here is still novel for me.

hot, sweet, and buttery.

An afternoon trip to Osaka Castle this afternoon. I ventured alone, and ended up being out way longer than I expected. I thought I would just take a short wander to check it out, make sure I knew where it was, and then go back another day for more exploration. Decided to do a lot of exploring today instead. It’s the most beautiful and green area I’ve found yet in Osaka. There were so many blossoming trees. They looked sort of like cherry blossoms, but I heard that before the actual cherry blossoms, there are other blossoms (someone called them “brown blossoms”, though they’re not brown… pre-blossom blossoms?). Anyway, they were pretty. Dark pink, light pink, white, and everything in between. And they smelled amazing. Osaka Castle is super cool. It’s not the original, as the original was burned down a long time back, and then rebuilt, and then burned down again, and then rebuilt. Still a beautiful structure, though. Surrounded by impressive walls and a moat. Surrounded by gardens and parks. Come visit and I will take you there!

Plum Grove at Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle

Wandering around I thought a lot of the Niagara Parkway and the botanical gardens and the floral clock and the vineyards and summer days along the Niagara River in the sun. I imagined how it must feel seeing all of that for the first time as I wandered around Osaka Castle for the first time. It’s wonderful living so close to those beautiful things, in the Niagara Region, and now here in Osaka. I’ve always wanted to live in a big city for awhile, just to see what it’s like. When I was out wandering the grounds of Osaka Castle today, though, and when I think of Niagara, I can’t imagine spending a long time in a big city. My first instinct is to say that it’s too much, but when it comes down to it, it’s not enough.

(I don’t have any of my pictures of the Niagara Parkway here, or I’d post one…)

CORRECTION: The trees I found were plum trees. It is a plum grove. Anyway, still super pretty and fragrant!


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